Monday, June 30, 2008


I was always puzzled why this pan-Asian restaurant cum cocktail bar was named after a creature best known for its devastating swarms on Africa's corn fields. But a bit of googling revealed that it was in fact I had my insects muddled up and it was named after a harmless, edible one. Apparently they go well with Worcestershire sauce, but there weren't any cicadas on the menu to enable me to confirm or deny this.

Instead there was a good Sunday brunch deal offering three dim sum plates and a drink for £15. Between three of us, we sampled all the eight dim sum on the menu, as well as three of their alcohol-free cocktails. The cocktails look fabulous and I almost don't miss the vodka in my virgin Mary.

The pork belly was topped with gloriously crisp crackling, but was scorching hot (cue one tongue casualty and much ice-crunching). This was also our first encounter with health food favourite edamame, and I really enjoyed sucking the baby green soybeans on the salty, soy sauce covered pods. The soy sauce also did wonders for the black cod, which came in dainty little dumplings.

All the food was beautifully presented: the salt'n'pepper squid looked stunning in little newspaper cones. It was a bit dry and over-fried -- not as nice as what we'd tried a couple of doors down at The Well earlier this month -- but good enough for us to polish off the lot with the spicy chilli dip. (Sorry about the photo - it seems to look upside down whichever way I rotate it!)

Chilli tofu, nasu dengaku (Japanese aubergine cooked in miso) & shiso leaf (a mint-like herb) looked almost too pretty, and too vegetal, to eat but represented a refreshing contrast to the richness of the sticky spare ribs dish.

The prawn dumplings reaffirmed their status as my all-time favourite dim sum dish, while

the pumpkin gyoza (Japanese fried dumplings) were probably my least favourite of the meal, partly because I don't really like pumpkin but mostly because it was sickly-sweet. Again though they looked very pretty.

So overall we enjoyed the dim sum. But if I want some kind of dim sum benchmark to compare all future efforts against, where would you recommend? Yuatcha? Hakkasan? Or somewhere else entirely?

Cicada, 132-6 St John Street, EC1V 4JT; Tel. 020 7608 1550; Tube: Barbican, Farringdon
As well as the Sunday brunch we sampled, they have 2 for 1 cocktails Mon-Sat 5-7pm, 50% off food on Monday with a (free) card, and are now part of Taste London.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Taste London

Another year, another Taste London.
Luckily this time we had free tickets thanks to an Eros Card competition, so only had to pay for the crowns - the festival's currency with which you buy food and drink.

On a glorious, sunny Sunday, the highlights were:

* lobster bisque from Le Gavroche
* free gin and tonics at the toptable hospitality tent

* parmesan custard with anchovy toast from Le Cafe Anglais
* foodie magazine freebies galore (delicious., Sainsbury's Magazine, Fortnum & Mason's Magazine...)
* grilled squid rolls from Le Crecle
* large and plentiful Cobra beer samples - very refreshing on a hot day
* yoghurt and strawberries samples from Onken

The disappointments were:
* Sainsbury's Taste Kitchen - a half hour of relentness upselling in exchange for samples of uninspiring cheese and flavourless beef (though the sample of Primitivo wine was nice)

* Surf'n'turf from Zilli - overdone lamb and not very nice tasting prawns, with nothing to bind the flavours of the two.
* lack of cheese stalls (there were lots last year, butthis time I found only one, offering mediocre flavoured cheddar for those too lazy to add pickle to their sarnies)
* less fun than last year, with no village fete games from Innocent smoothies, or wheel of fortune from Waitrose, or other such entertainments
* Rhodes 24 pedalling the same white tomato soup as last year

The purchases were:
* wild mushrooms from Fundamentally Fungus
* presticide free strawberies from Good Natured Fruit
* ginger and lemongrass presse from Bottle Green

My verdict: a good afternoon for £30 for two (what we spent), a rip off if you've also forked out £21 each for the entrance fee.

And, since I am a bit late writing this up, here's a small round up of what other food bloggers thought:
* Chris over at Cheese and Biscuits liked the Caipirinhas and the white tomato soup
* Niamh of Eat Like a Girl enjoyed keenly priced English wine and beetroot gazpacho
* Chris Osburn from The Londonist was impressed by the Madeleines but unimpressed by the cost of the tickets.
* Around Britain With A Paunch like the parmesan custard enough to dedicated an entire post to it alone.

(My review of last year's event is here.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Discounted Dinners

Another restaurant discount scheme has just come to my attention so I thought I'd do a round up of offers/discounts that I know of. (I haven't used all of these myself.)

Please let me know of any others!

* A website from which you can print off vouchers for 20% off your meal at a small selection of restaurants. They also have discounts for some London tourist attractions.
* primarily a diners' reviews website, but also includes some special offers if you book through them. I remember reading somewhere that they've been bought out by toptable?
* An American website that's making inroads into London now. Online booking, including some places which are not available on toptable. No special offers as such, but you get points for each booking (and sometimes they have offers of extra points), redeemable for restaurant gift vouchers. (I haven't accumulated enough points yet, but it says they are accepted by any restaurant on the site.)
* IMHO this is the best of the lot. It's free, lets you book most London restaurants online, gives you loyalty points for each booking which are redeemable against free meals (though be careful, these expire after a year) and has lots of offers from set meals to 50% off food. The site's pretty good too, with reviews and example menus. They also cover some places in other parts of the UK and in some foreign capital cities, like Paris.
* A good website on what's going on in London, including bookable restaurant offers.

Paid restaurant discount cards:
* Taste London: a whopping £69.95 per year for a card giving 50% off food or 2-for-1 deals at over 500 London restaurants. The caveats are that may offers a valid for first visit only (each restaurant has its own number on the back of your card and they cross it out once the offer is used), many places don't accept the card on Fridays and Saturdays and usually only 2 people can use the 2-for-1 deal per card (not so good for a larger group). If you are interested though, they quite often offer discounted membership (about £20 off) through adds in the free Metro newspaper or here.
* Tio Pepe Midweek Dining Club: £9.99 per year for a card that gives various offers at over 1,000 restaurants across the UK. Some of the offers are same as those on toptable, but there are also some places included which I haven't seen taking part in other schemes.
* Wedge Card: £10.49 a year for a card giving discounts at mostly independent shops, restaurants and services. Most participating businesses are based in London though.

* If there is a restaurant you want to go to, my top tip would be to check out their website for any special offers, and to sign up to any email newsletter for special offers and events. This can work both with chains and with small independent places.
* Holders of Senior, Family or Young Persons railcards can get a
discount at several nationwide chains, and there also offers to be had with a normal train ticket.
* Oyster card users benefit from a couple of restaurant deals as well as other London discounts.
* American Express has a monthly-changing list of offers for its card-holders, including restaurant ones.
* The website also has a regularly-updated page of various discounts, which currently includes 2-for-1 at Wagamama.
* And there's a great list of lunchtime deals at top marks places from Zagat.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The art of complaining

When do you - or when should you - complain in a restaurant?

Some people never complain.
I do when the situation is very clear-cut -- the service is very slow, the wrong order is brought, the wine is off, that kind of thing -- and it can be well worth doing.
But what about occasions when there is nothing badly wrong but it's just not that great?

At The Larder, my starter of lentils, anchovies and poached egg (£4.90) would have been far, far nicer if it was hot (who serves cold poached eggs?),

the orange sauce with the duck terrine (£5.90) was sickly sweet

and to my taste the main course meat was overcooked to toughness, both my roast guinea fowl (£14.50)

and my friend's pork fillet (£13.50).

The very friendly waitress duly came up and asked if we were enjoying the meal, and we duly nodded and smiled.
Was that wrong?

I wasn't not enjoying the meal -- the home-made olive bread was good, the guinea fowl came in a nice wild mushroom sauce, the roasted new potatoes (£3.50) were beautifully crisp (though the mayonnaise I asked for inexplicably tasted of mustard), the parmesan croquettes which came with the pork were a heaven-made match of cheese and carbs, and the house white (£14) was nicely zingy.
Plus we were highly entertained by the next table whose gentleman was very indignant about being served lime cordial instead of wine (apparently they'd filled up the empty bottles with cordial to decorate the wine racks, but one of them accidentally got served to a customer).

And yet somehow those nods and smiles to the charming waitress felt false. Should I have said something??

The Larder, 91-93 St. John St, EC1M 4NU; Tel. 020 76081558; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon;
Toptable is currently doing 50% off food, which with house wine is slightly better value than its other offer of 2 courses plush half a bottle of vino for £19.95.

PS: I've reviewed The Larder before, when it first opened last year.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ciao Bella

Ciao Bella is enormously popular - on a wet, miserable Tuesday evening even the barely-sheltered outside tables are abuzz, and the two stories indoors also fill up. There is an old school, traditional Italian hospitality vibe - it's the kind of place where you feel you should know the owner.

I arrive first, and they willingly bring out my tap water, as well as plates of olives and chunks of gutsy parmesan (but be careful - though unbidden, these will appear on the menu at £2.50 a pop). We dither over the lengthy menu and luckily decide to skip on the starters.

The main course platefuls of pasta are ginormous - each enough to feed two or even three pretty hungry people. The meatballs in spaghetti con polpette (£7.20) are as big as potatoes, while spaghetti all'aragosta (by the far the most expensive thing on the menu at £15.50) comes with what looks like an entire lobster. Of the four of us, only one comes anywhere near finishing, though not through dislike of the food. Even the signature tagliatelle "Ciao Bella" (£6.80) is surprisingly tasty despite mixing salmon with dolcelatte. The valpolicella (£14.50) is very quaffable lubricant for a pleasant, low key evening.

Everyone should have a good local Italian, and Ciao Bella fits the bill very well. It would work as well for a large group as a loved up couple. Plus, being Italian, they happily welcome children too. My loyalty, though, lies firmly with Venezia and its dolcelatte steaks.

Ciao Bella, 86-90 Lamb's Conduit St, WC1N 3LZ; Tel. 0207 2424119

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


After Exmouth Market, Hoxton Square is perhaps my favourite place for eating - the odd beggar aside, it's great people watching on a summer's day.
As usual, we wonder round the square, looking at the menus and dithering.

And then the specials board outside Yelo tempts us in with promises of duck or seabass for under £7. The vibe is cheap (metal tables) and cheerful (bright yellow laminated menus). Our New Zealand Sauvingon blanc (£16.95) is served in glass tumblers of the kind you get in school canteens. I kinda like that, and for the sheer incongruence, wish we'd ordered champagne.

The Thai dim sum (£3.95) features two plump dumplings of chicken and two of pork. They are dense, with none of the delicate flavour fireworks I've had in serious dim sum joints, but they aren't too bad. And I enjoy sprinkling them with crumbled peanuts and chilli flakes from the table's condiments selection (I skip on the pickled chopped carrots though).

But I am jealous of the husband's tom kar galangai soup (£3.95, which is packed with creamy, herby, coconuty flavours, absorbed into sliced mushrooms and a couple of juicy prawns, with a strong kick of spice.

There are lots of big prawns in the salad -- especially considering the modest £5.45 price tag -- piled upon zestily-dressed leaves, onions and tomatoes. My only complaint is that the plate is too small - at least one prawn ends up as a casualty on the floor.

The special features well-cooked seabass (complete with tail!) in a green curry sauce (£6.50), though note that rice is extra (£1.80 for coconut rice).

All in all, it's not a romantic or lingering kind of a place, but seems like a good bet for a delicious and keenly-priced meal. They also do takeaways (so you can save on the booze mark up and sit on the grass) and deliveries.

Yelo, 8-9 Hoxton Square, N1 6NU; Tel. 0207 729 4626;

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Elk in the Woods

The location: Amid expensive boutiques and junk antique stalls in Islington's Camden Passage. We were actually planning to try The Breakfast Club after it was recommended in Time Out, but there was a queue snaking out of the door and patience is not one of my virtues.

The spec: A friendly elk head looks at us from a wooden slatted wall. There is a distant aura of a trendy ski chalet. It's not quite a bar, not quite a restaurant and there's a good mix of people from an old lady daintily sipping tea to young couples brunching on cocktails. The staff are friendly, joking.

The good: The chips - a huge bowl of thin, crispy, hand-made, skin-still-on deliciousness for £4. The bloody Marys (off menu) come with a good kick of spice, and a good range of alcohol-free concoctions (£3.50). Plus, I like the decor and the service.

The bad: The rest of the food - it's pretty blah. The husband plays adventurous with South African kudu – a rather majestic-looking antelope -- and zebra skewers (£4.75). It's a tiny portion - but then it did come from the "smalls" section of the menu - and fails to score any sparks in the taste department.
If memory serves, that’s our second disappointing experience with zebra, the first being in a French restaurant on Upper Street. On the other hand, I’ve had perfectly nice horse before, for example in T’Kelderke in Brussels.

My wild mushroom, potato and artichoke pie is very bland. It's basically a pastry case filled with boiled new potatoes. It needs something to liven it up - cheese perhaps, or sausage, or both. The menu promised parmesan but I can't spot it. And for £12 this is hideously over-priced. About the only thing I like about it is that it comes with sour cream.

The verdict: Great place for cocktails (£7) and chips, but go elsewhere for a proper meal. Hardens, again, is pretty much spot on.

The Elk in the Woods, 31 Camden Passage, N1 8EA; Tel. 0207 2263535 Tube: Angel,

Fifty Six

There's a pleasantly old-fashioned vibe at Stoke Newington's Fifty Six, with deep fried cheese and roasts on the menu, and the friendly waitress joking with the local regulars. We arrive at about 5pm, for a late lunch/early dinner (dinch? lunner?), and find a good people-watching spot in the window. Judging by the other visitors, this funny mealtime suits families with young kids, whom the main waitress (owner?) makes feel very welcome.
Bread (of a rather dull, thinly sliced white variety) and a bowl of nice, herby olives arrive with the menus.

I start, retro-fashion, with deep fried cheese fritters -- a triangle of oozing brie, and a rectangle of stringy (in a good, melted cheese way) mozzarella, served with a crisp salad and some cranberry jelly on the side (£4).

The husband has moules mariniere (£5.50), and I like the sauce a lot, helping myself
to a slice of dunked bread's worth.

For 'mains', we choose two more starters. The duck salad from the specials board (£6) features tender, pink, smoky slices of duck. The only blot is the slightly pointless smattering of grated white cheese, too cold to taste of much, on top of the meat.

The cheddar, leek and potato cakes (£4) work well with the accompanying yoghurt, perhaps a nod to the Turkish culture of the area.
A half bottle of chablis (£12, or we could have had the house wine for a similar price) completes the meal at under £35, including service. It's not destination dining, of course, but well worth a try if you happen to be local.
It's the first time I've been up here, and I really like the area. It has a pleasant, neighbourly vibe, and there are plenty of other nice-looking eateries. Shame about the transport links though, which are pretty much limited to lengthy bus journeys.

Fifty Six, 56 Newington Green, N16 9PX; Tel. 0207 359 6377; Transport: buses or overground to Canonbury Rail;

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Terrace in the Fields

The Terrace is hidden away in a porta-cabin-like hut overlooking the tennis courts in the green haven of Lincoln's Inn Fields in the heart of lawyers' London.
I had been on my list since I saw a good review in Time Out some while back, and a sunny lunchtime (a rarity so far this summer) seemed like the ideal opportunity to visit.

We sat outside, on funky yet reasonably comfy plastic chairs, shielded from the bouncing balls by a tall fence. As lunching settings go it was pretty idyllic, and there's a two course set menu for just £14.50, and yet the terrace (both with and without the capital T) was at best half full during our leisurely lunch.

(Increasingly, it seems, people are tightening their belts -- how else would you explain that on a recent night out in Canary Wharf all the swish bars along West India Quay were empty, yet the Wetherspoon's hidden round the corner was heaving, with besuited city types fumbling for money off coupons to further reduce their bar tab?)

The set menu focuses on traditional European dishes, while the a la carte draws more on Caribbean influences. As it was too hot and sunny for jerk chicken (for my tastes, anyway), we opted for the former.

The starter of smoked salmon and crayfish salad was prettily served in a glass, though in practice this made it rather hard to eat as the salmon was not in bite sized pieces. It was pleasant, but no more than that.

For the mains, the husband's chicken breast was moist enough, but pretty bland. Plonked on a large pile of mash and sploshed with gravy (sorry, jus), it didn't look hugely appetising. Also, it really needed some veg/salad -- something the waiter didn't point out when we ordered.

Luckily I had plenty of roasted Mediterranean-style veg sprinkled around my giant fritter of goats' cheese and aubergine, and was willing to share. The fritter wasn't bad.
We washed the lunch down with a light, summery prosecco (£24) and tap water (which arrived after a couple of promptings).

I looked the place up in Harden's when I got home and think they are pretty much spot on -- the setting aside, it was a nice enough experience but definitely nothing special.

The Terrace in the Fields, Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3LJ; Tel. 020 7430 1234;